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Why the Delta matters

In his 1997 book Rising Tide, which chronicles the great Mississippi River flood of 1927, author John Barry closes with a rumination on societal changes.

“A society does not change in sudden jumps,” Barry writes. “Rather, it moves in multiple small steps along a broad front. Most of these steps are parallel if not quite simultaneous; some advance farther than others, and some even move in an opposite direction. The movement rather resembles that of an amoeba, with one part of the body extending itself outward, then another, even while the main body stays back, until enough of the mass has shifted to move the entire body.”

So it is in the Delta of east Arkansas. There have been no sudden leaps forward following decades of economic decline-no giant automobile assembly plants, no ethanol boom, no discovery of oil. But there are many talented people taking those “multiple small steps,” and their numbers appear to be increasing even as the region’s overall population declines.

Looking back on my four years as one of two presidential appointees to the eight-state Delta Regional Authority, I am reminded of the work being done here in Arkansas by true visionaries. I think of the amazing educational opportunities provided by Scott Shirey and his staff of public education missionaries at the KIPP Delta College Preparatory School in Helena-West Helena.

I think of Glen Fenter, the president of Mid-South Community College at West Memphis, and the other administrators and faculty members at the five two-year colleges that have formed the Arkansas Delta Training and Education Consortium. The ADTEC coalition is providing training for the kinds of jobs that will be available in the 21st century. These educators are changing lives daily.

I think of Becky Hall and her dedicated staff at the UAMS Delta Area Health Education Center in Helena-West Helena. I have seen first-hand the difference this facility and the people who work there are making.

These people and dozens of others with whom I worked during the past four years are heroes to me. They’re not in plush offices writing papers on the problems of the Delta. They’re on the front lines doing battle in a region that has been racked by substantial economic and demographic changes for more than 60 years.

A recent story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette described how the mayor of Pine Bluff is planning to use every tactic possible during the upcoming census count in an attempt to ensure that the city does not fall below 50,000 residents for the first time in decades. It won’t be an easy task.

A Democrat-Gazette story a few weeks ago had detailed the large loss in the number of students who attend the Pine Bluff School District. The census story also quoted the mayor of Helena-West Helena as saying the area had lost at least 2,500 people since the 2000 census.

It is against these demographic trends-in a state that has long seen a general shift in the population from east and south to north and west-that the Scott Shireys, Glen Fenters and Becky Halls of the Arkansas Delta fight the good but uphillfight, reminding themselves that “a society does not change in sudden jumps.” They instead take the “multiple small steps along a broad front,” hoping that those steps will result in a better life for the people who live in this historic, culturally rich part of our state.

They are among the most resilient people in our country. The Delta experienced the Civil War, Reconstruction, yellow fever and other epidemics and then the flood of 1927. Just as the region was beginning to recover from the flood, the Great Depression began in 1929. Much of the rest of the nation started to prosper again in the years immediately following World War II. Thanks to the GI Bill, thousands of veterans became the first members of their families to attend college. Following college, they married, bought homes and purchased automobiles. The steel industry boomed. The automobile industry also prospered.

In the Delta, though, the mechanization of cotton farming combined with the evils of segregation to drive thousands of residents-African-Americans and some poor whites-out of the state. This next census likely will show that counties such as Phillips and Mississippi have less than half the population they had in the 1950 census. Men and women who had once worked as tenants on the plantations of east Arkansas were working in the years after World War II in steel mills and automobile factories in places such as Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Gary.

One only has to drive through rural east Arkansas during the Christmas holidays to see the automobile license plates in the driveways from Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and even California.

GOT THE BLUES
During the past decade, the Delta has done a better job of attracting those drawn to heritage tourism. Blues tourists come to the region to pay homage to their blues heroes, eat pork barbecue and then head home. For far too many of those who actually live in the region, though, the blues are all too real.If they have a job, the chances are that their wages are low. Too often, their health is poor and the education their children receive is not up to par. This downward economic spiral has even led some to ask: “Does the Delta matter?”

For any rational American, the answer is: “Of course, the Delta matters.” The best-known American music has its roots in the region. The Delta has supplied our nation with many of its finest statesmen, writers and chefs. And there’s a unique ethnic mix. In addition to the rich African American culture, there are the Italians who came to the region as sharecroppers and the Jews who settled along the Mississippi River as merchants. The Chinese came to build railroads and sometimes stayed to run businesses. Across the Delta, one can still find grocery stores with names such as Fong and Wong. The Lebanese added to this cultural stew.

The Delta is a place apart. While that might appeal to some tourists, it has too often made the region an economic backwater. Federal and state government agencies have spent huge amounts of money in the region, but that money is often spent unwisely. Rather than making strategic investments that will lead to permanent, private-sector jobs-the best way out of poverty-the funds are spread thinly, serving simply to sustain misery in some of the tiny crossroads communities that have been dying since the end of the sharecropping era.

Pete Johnson of Mississippi, the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, has compared the Delta to “a giant Indian reservation, separate from mainstream society in the region’s larger cities-out of sight, out of mind unless it’s a weekend gambling excursion.”

But the region still matters to those in other parts of the state, if for nothing else than its great agricultural output. It’s important for Arkansans to remember that the Delta is the heart of a vital agricultural industry in our state. Agriculture represents 16 percent of the state’s total labor income. With 46,500 farms on 14.3 million acres statewide, Arkansas ranks 11th nationally in total farm receipts. Arkansas is the country’s largest producer of rice and ranks second in cotton production, fifth in grain sorghum production and 10th in soybean production. Americans would be surprised to learn that Arkansas produced more cotton than Mississippi last year. Only Texas grows more. In fact, Arkansas ranks 21st or higher for the production of 19 commodities.

The farmers of east Arkansas are some of the best in the world at producing food and fiber. Just as the overall state economy needs Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods to be strong, people in all parts of the state have a vested interest in Delta row-crop agriculture remaining strong. We must constantly search for new markets, greater efficiencies and more value-added products. Yet in an industry that requires fewer people than ever before to plant, grow and harvest crops, economic diversification takes on added significance. Arkansas farmers do things the right way.

CHASING ACME
It’s in the search for diversification where major mistakes are being made. For years, economic development in the rural South meant appealing to Northern companies to move to a region where there were weaker unions, fewer regulations, a lower cost of living and an ability to pay low wages.
In too many communities, the business and civic leadership still think the answer is to put in a new road, run water and sewer lines to a site and erect a sign on the highway declaring it as the “industrial park.” Then they wonder why manufacturing companies don’t flock there. They never stop to consider that perhaps their public schools and health care facilities aren’t what they should be.

These community leaders are still out there chasing the Acme Widget Co. that will bring 500 jobs. The reality might be that such a company will never come to their community given its current approach. In the modern economy, their time would be better spent improving the community’s “quality of place” to the point that a college graduate from there could seriously consider returning home to start a business. At first, that business might have only one or two employees. A decade later, the homegrown company might have 10 to 20 employees.

The problems facing the region can be overwhelming when viewed as a whole. What’s needed now is the political will-at the local, state and federal levels-to make tough decisions while better targeting public resources in ways that truly address the economic and social problems. Only when elected officials find the courage to look beyond the next election-as they did with school consolidation in the wake of the Arkansas Supreme Court’s 2002 Lake View ruling-will things truly change for the better.

Through “multiple small steps”-many of which must involve health improvement and the further improvement of the public schools-elected officials statewide can work with the everyday heroes in the region to lift up those who have remained in theDelta despite the countless disasters, both the ones sent by nature and the ones caused by man.

Granted, growth is impossible without proper infrastructure. But it’s no longer enough to build a wastewater-treatment plant and assume growth will occur as a result. For decades, federal and state economic development grants have been used to support these kinds of traditional economic infrastructure projects. More times than you would want to count, the job promises fall short, industries don’t relocate and fully serviced industrial parks stand unused.

Community leaders probably would have been better off supporting downtown revitalization efforts, working to improve the quality of the existing housing stock, hiring grant writers, supporting the expansion of medical facilities, developing more entertainment and recreational assets and protecting their environment. For the Arkansas Delta, with itstraditional agricultural and resource-based economy, diversification and innovation are crucial.

PRIVATE DOLLARS NEEDED
State and federal agencies can help community leaders by becoming more targeted in how they invest taxpayer money. The key to economic success in the 21st century is to field a competitive workforce and then work like crazy to attract private investment. That private investment most likely will flow to those places that:
• Improve the health of the workforce with the clear understanding that healthy people yield healthy economies.
• Deepen the culture of learning through improved public schools, workforce training programs and adult literacy programs.
• Embrace diversity and new ways of thinking, a high hurdle in many tradition-bound Delta communities.
• Nurture an entrepreneurial culture.
• Deploy broadband internet access and other forms of enhanced information technology tools.

As we’ve seen since the end of World War II, the economic competitiveness of a rural area is no longer assured through natural resources and inexpensive labor. The Delta has some of the richest soil and hardest-working people anywhere. Yet it is struggling. Delta towns must do a better job at developing and retaining the talent necessary to find a place in the global economy-an economy in which knowledge and innovation are rewarded as never before.

The last thing that needs to happen is to simply repackage existing workforce development ideas and training programs. We must start thinking far differently than before when it comes to the Arkansas Delta.

For instance, economic development isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when one mentions the term “public health.” People think instead of children being vaccinated, senior citizens being urged to get their flu shots and scientists working to rid the food supply of something that’s causing an illness. But economic development and public health have had a long relationship in this country. During the late 1800s and well into the 1900s, American business leaders worked to give more prominenceto public health issues. Progressive communities established parks that provided residents a respite from industrial grit. They implemented building codes to improve housing conditions and introduced land-use zoning to force a separation of industrial and residential areas. Public health issues were held up in these progressive communities as the foundation for economic development.

Due to the success of public health initiatives in the 20th century, we take public health standards for granted in the 21st century. Arkansans no longer understand the fundamental link between public health and economic development. This lack of understanding is happening at a time when poor eating habits and inadequate exercise have led to an obesity epidemic, a problem that’s particularly acute in the Delta. Obesity increases the likelihood of diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. Unhealthy employees miss more days of work, require additional medical attention and command higher health insurance premiums.

Delta leaders who are serious about connecting public health and economic development must engage those in the private sector. It’s an issue that can’t be left to government. Local task forces dedicated to a healthy workforce should be established by chambers of commerce and other business organizations.

These same groups must also focus on the rapidly changing face of technology. Broadband internet access is critical. I would contend that broadband deployment is as important to the future of rural Arkansas in this century as the spread of electricity was in the previous century. There are still too many community leaders who assume the answer to all their problems is a four-lane highway. That’s not the case. The information technology revolution of the past few decades has permanently altered the economic and social environments.

BIGGER ISN’T BETTER
Quit obsessing on landing the Acme Widget Co. Maybe that water line, rail extension or new road is not the best way to spend taxpayer money. No longer can economic development be measured solely by the number of jobs created. Those new manufacturing plants that employ hundreds of people will become a rarity. Get away from the idea that bigger is better, the concept that has driven economic development for decades. Focus instead on the idea that better is better.

No one can deny that a lot of Delta towns will be smaller in the 2010 census than they were in the 2000 census. They might be smaller still in 2020. But they can be better-with a better trained and more adaptable workforce, a healthier population, access to broadband, cleaned-up downtowns and residential neighborhoods, leadership training programs, improved public schools, a focus on innovation.

It’s time to realize that yet another industrial park may not be in the community’s best interest. It’s time for government leaders to understand that a grant to improve broadband access might be more beneficial than another road. Those visionaries who already are working hard in east Arkansas need policymakers statewide to join them in doing business in a new way. The sharecropping era, when hundreds of people flocked to Delta crossroads communities each Saturday night, ended long ago. If we don’t stop trying to re-create the past, the Arkansas Delta will be a charming place to hunt, fish and experience the blues before returning home to Little Rock, Fort Smith, Texarkana or Fayetteville. It will be, in essence, a hauntingly beautiful but increasingly deserted museum piece.

We cannot allow that to happen. The Arkansas Delta and the gracious people who still call it home matter.

Rex Nelson is the senior vice president for government relations and public outreach at The Communications Group in Little Rock. He recently resigned his job as the alternate federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. He can be reached at rnelson@comgroup.com .

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